by Linda Chamberlain
The horse’s hoof can pack a punch. Sometimes heavy, it can wriggle or fly towards your face and holding it for a long time can do untold damage to your back.
Is it any wonder that the job of caring for those hefty and sometimes unpredictable digits has been traditionally left to the male of our species? After all, men are generally known to have a tad more muscle than women and many are capable of instilling a sense of respect, sometimes fear, in the average ridden horse.
But, if you will excuse the pun, there is dramatic change afoot.
There has been a 70 per cent reported increase in the number of women training as farriers in the UK although they are still in the minority.
The greatest change is being felt in the barefoot movement where women are qualifying in large numbers and sometimes at great personal expense in order to maintain horses without fixed, permanent shoes on their feet. Women are outnumbering men in this growing niche market and sometimes facing resentment from male farriers that goes beyond the gender issue. Let’s face it, traditional farriery is being challenged to its very core by this pioneering group of women.
Tracey Pettipher, an equine podiatrist from the Midlands, explained: ‘There were 10 people on my course but only 2 of them were men.’
All barefoot training courses are appealing to women and to celebrate this 100th anniversary year of women securing the vote in the UK, I wanted to get a photo of suffragist Millicent Fawcett’s statue on this blog and to find out more. What attracts women to grapple with horse legs instead of computer? Are they bringing different priorities to the male-dominated world of the horse’s hoof? And are they fighting against bias in the workplace in the same way that their sisters complain of in an office environment?
Choose a career in media or the Stock Exchange and it is reported that male colleagues might be promoted instead of you, or be paid far more. Hoof trimmers are self employed but might equally face bias or suspicion from potential customers.
To get some answers I spoke to three special women. I have chosen them because I either know them personally or have connected with them on Facebook. There are others who will be equally ground breaking, interesting, brave, strong and wonderful and this article is a tribute to all of them. They do a job I would have loved…but didn’t quite have the back!
No apologies for asking Alicia Mitchell to be the first to take centre stage. We are friends and now live near each other. I met her years ago when I acquired a bay thoroughbred called Carrie who was under threat of being put to sleep because her feet were so bad with navicular – no wonder she was refusing jumps as an event horse. They were like Aladdin’s slippers, long and curling and impossible to keep shod. Her shoes fell off within 2 weeks of her arrival but then her feet gradually crumbled and split. I was alarmed and found Alicia, who was then in the next county, online.
Back in 2006 she trained under Jaime Jackson in the US. Together we worked with Carrie who returned to some pleasure jumping and had another 10 years with me.
Alicia’s story is poignant and gives a startling insight into the physicality and challenges of the job.
Just imagine, this was the early days of barefoot, there were very few qualified professionals other than farriers and although she eventually had 100 horses on her books they were spread from the Isle of Wight, up to Surrey and across to Dover in Kent – a big chunk of southern UK. She might trim 10 horses in a day and that would be coupled with long hours in the car; she found it exhausting. Eating, let alone eating well, took second place. She’s not sure when she became ill but, looking back, it’s clear she was ignoring symptoms. There were so few specialist trimmers around that she had no one to delegate to and she felt increasingly responsible for her clients and their equines. She couldn’t give up, her customers had no one else but something was going terribly wrong.
She picks up the story, ‘There was a point at the height of the business when the horses were beginning to tell me something because they were increasingly playing up. I was having some strange symptoms and sometimes it didn’t feel as though I was safe.
‘I was missing appointments. Double booking. And then one morning I woke up and couldn’t see. I was blind.’
Thankfully, the loss of sight was temporary but it was her wake-up call. Nothing was found wrong with her eyesight but she went for an MRI scan and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. MS affects brain function and balance; she had to slow down, eat well, trim less.
I remember that time. It was the beginning of our friendship and she was an unreliable timekeeper as a trimmer. Frankly, I didn’t mind because my horses’ hooves were looking good and Alicia was very willing to act as teacher so I could take charge between visits. She spent seven years as a full-time trimmer but perhaps she instinctively knew that her expertise needed to be shared, that she wouldn’t carry on.
But I was curious about how others reacted to her in those early days. Although not petite, she isn’t a hefty-built woman. As I write this I’m smiling because my friend looks nothing like a farrier and if you spent your horse-owning life booking one of those you might be surprised when Alicia hops out of her car, pulls out her hoof stand and pins back her curly hair, ready for work with a sunny smile. If a horse owner booked her for a consultation at a large livery yard it was quite likely that she would be surrounded by others listening in, sometimes commenting, sometimes hostile about her ground-breaking advice on diet and lifestyle and its effect on the horse’s hoof.
‘Some would be grumpy about it; they had never heard their farrier talking like this. Being small meant I was more approachable and they didn’t mind saying what they thought. I needed to keep calm, keep smiling but I began to realise that it was a personal journey and some people were frightened.’
And farriers? ‘Usually clients on a large yard would keep us apart! But I can smile my way out of a situation. They have a lot of bravado but once you start talking techie with them there is this understanding. I would say to them that this is growing and they need to learn about the wild horse model and not argue with me about the dark ages.
‘Shoes are a fantastic coping strategy. They saw us through the industrial revolution but now we have moved on.’
Alicia has also moved on. She is fit and well and still has a few local clients. She looks after her own horse plus some liveries and is now studying wildlife conservation and land management. She remains passionate about barefoot and the natural horse.
She had to step back from her dream job but argues – ‘it’s not that women can’t do it; they can! My scenario by no means occurred due to being female or choosing such a demanding career. Life just demanded that I also study natural human care! I feel as though I have passed on the baton and am excited to see where it’s going.’
Which brings me to my other two interviewees. I have already mentioned Tracey Pettipher. Recently qualified as an equine podiatrist she already has 150 horses on her books. There are days when she will trim 10 of them but doing five or six is preferred. She acknowledges the physical demands of the job and there are days when her body feels as though it’s seizing up.
‘You need to be physically fit,’ she says.
But Tracey was always ‘a bit of a tomboy’, hanging out in trees in preference to quieter pursuits as a child. Later, she worked with her dad, a telephone engineer, and her job included climbing those tall poles. She was used to a male environment, went on to become a senior manager at BT but redundancy led to this startling change of direction, working with horses.
Women working in a man’s world have to prove they are capable of the task required but I was curious about the hostility they might meet. Tracey’s account of a workshop she went on is fascinating. She was the only woman, the only barefoot trimmer, in a group of 50 farriers who might think she and her kind were treading on their toes.
‘It was OK, I am confident but then I was introduced to the group and some people gasped. I could have been the Taliban. There were death stares! I needed to explain that I was not crazy. I spoke about the three-year training I had done and how we support owners on nutrition. There were some who wouldn’t speak to me but others chatted during the breaks.’
She doesn’t see herself as competition to farriers but rather plugging a gap in the market. Most of the horses on her books come from natural horsemanship homes and do better with a different approach for handling and hoof care, finding some farriers too rough. About 20 per cent have reached the end of the road with remedial farriery and are desperately seeking a cure for lameness.
What unique skills do women bring to this domain? I asked.
‘They think more about what is best for the horse, the needs of the horse, rather than a utility object,’ she said.
The needs of her own horse, Sunny, prompted Tracey into this brave new barefoot world. He suffered a major colic in 2014 requiring surgery and a long period of box rest. She had always used a farrier for shoeing and trimming and, once Sunny was recovered, he was trimmed and allowed out of his stable.
Tracey explained: ‘He became very footy and I knew something wasn’t quite right. So I called my farrier for advice. I was told he had probably trimmed him a bit short and that he would be all right in a week or so’s time. A week later I found him in his field on three legs and unable to move.’
A vet diagnosed laminitis and advised more box rest. Tracey knew how distressing that was for her horse and was determined to find an alternative approach. ‘I was amazed at how much my EP knew about the condition and that trimming the foot was only a small part of the recovery process. She advised me on his diet and environment and worked very closely with the vet and myself, which resulted in him making a speedy recovery and back into work in a relatively short period of time. It was then that I decided I wanted to help others battling with this awful condition.’
You might have noticed that my interviewees frequently mention diet and some explanation might be timely. Grass, and rich grass in particular, is known to cause havoc with hooves due to its high sugar content. Some bucket feeds will also be filled with molasses and other unhelpful ingredients and most barefoot experts will advise you change your regime to avoid discomfort for your horse. Shoes might disguise that pain, barefoot horse owners have to get it right!
Finally, I want you to meet Caroline Wang-Andresen whose workload might make any decent man reach for his yoga mat and sprint to the nearest retreat centre.
She is Somerset based and looks after her own eight horses on five acres, has two children and about 400 equine clients. She might trim 20 of them if they are on the same yard but between 10 and 15 is quite usual. She doesn’t do yoga to iron out the kinks in her back, much to my amazement.
Her own dressage horse introduced her to the world of barefoot about 18 years ago when he became ‘stale’ and wasn’t going forward, hinting that something was wrong. An instructor suggested taking his shoes off but he was crippled as a result and they went back on. Diet was addressed and another attempt was made, taking time to introduce him to different ground surfaces. Six months later the horse was sound and he has been without shoes ever since.
Caroline was an office manager at this time, not enjoying her work, itching to do something else. So, she investigated training as a hoof trimmer, found Jaime Jackson’s AANHCP and qualified three and a half years later. She has been working full time for the past 14 years.
‘I get to work outside all day and I have autonomy,’ she said, happily.
Farriers have not been known to worry or intimidate this young mother but the horse world is probably at the top of the pile for British conservatism. At a clinic at Hartpury College she chatted to another horse owner.
‘She asked what I did and said she would never have a woman do her horses’ feet. It would be odd.’
Another time she couldn’t help eavesdropping on a conversation between a local vet and a horse owner in which Caroline’s concern about the effect of rich grass on the equine hoof was being ridiculed.
‘The vet had no idea I was there but I was in the stable next door, trimming a horse, and he was slagging me off.’
You need to be physically strong to be a trimmer – a tough exterior is also helpful.
The autonomy Caroline speaks of is the key. Being self employed means the work of these women will be judged directly by the customer and their horse. If their care produces lame horses and unsatisfied owners they will lose out.
I am pleased to report – they are not.
Perhaps 2018 will be remembered as a good year for women…and the domestic horse.
Links – Tracey covers mainly Warwickshire and Oxfordshire
Caroline covers a large chunk of South West UK
A couple of articles ago, a few readers alerted me to some derision on Facebook. Apparently my pages carry wordpress adverts from betting companies. I would like point out that I don’t receive this massive amount of revenue but I do find it mildly amusing. I don’t see the ads as I have an ad blocker at work on my lap top but, since I sometimes write about barefoot race horses, no doubt the betting industry was attracted. Or perhaps it’s because this blog has had nearly 300,000 views since its launch. This has got me thinking – it would be great to carry some FREE ADS that are helpful to horses. So if you have a product, an event or a service that is good for the horse I would love to include it in a list after each blog. Please get in touch via Facebook (see link below) – unlike betting, you have nothing to lose.
HERE ARE the first free ads – Barefoot Horse Magazine issue 19 in print and digital is out now. Full of brilliant articles on navicular, the link between diet and laminitis, hoof boot news, the benefits of special plants. Check it out.
And have you found Barefoot Horse Owners Group UK on Facebook? – for the best support and advice on riding without shoes. There are now 23,000 members – an awful lot of bare hooves.
The Total Contact Saddle is a unique treeless saddle that has just reached the shortlist for the Saddle Research Trust Awards for 2018. get more info about the saddle at http://www.total-contact.co.uk
My non-fiction book – A Barefoot Journey – tells the story of riding without shoes in a hostile equine world. Mistakes, falls and triumphs are recorded against the background of a divided equine world which was defending the tradition of shoeing…with prosecutions. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p.
My historical novel, The First Vet, is inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago but was mocked by the veterinary establishment. His battle motivated me to stretch my writing skills from journalism to novel writing and took me to the British Library and the Royal Veterinary College for years of research. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This page-turning book has more than 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society.
‘I originally bought this book from Linda at a horse show a couple of years ago but only just got round to reading it. I wish I had read it ages ago! I was absolutely gripped from the first page. It is brilliantly written, well researched, and told with compassion.’ – Amazon UK reader.
I’m a writer and journalist – if you want to keep in touch, click the follow button on this campaigning blog or find me on Facebook…or buy one of my books for yourself or a friend!